Obama Vows to Destroy Islamic State, But Expanded Strikes in Syria & Iraq Point to "Endless War"

September 11, 2014


Peter Galbraith

former U.S. ambassador to Croatia and former adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government. He is currently a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. His books include Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies and The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End.

Vijay Prashad

professor of international studies at Trinity College. He is the author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

President Obama has authorized U.S. airstrikes for the first time in Syria and their expansion in Iraq against the militant group Islamic State. In a prime-time address, Obama vowed to hunt down Islamic State militants "wherever they are." Obama also announced he is sending 475 more U.S. military troops to Iraq, bringing the total to 1,600. He also called for congressional support to arm and train the Syrian opposition. We get analysis of Obama’s speech and this latest U.S. military foray into the Middle East with two guests: Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. ambassador to Croatia who has worked on issues involving Iraq since the 1980s and a former adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government; and Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College and author of several books. Prashad’s latest article is "What President Obama Should Not Do About ISIS."


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In a prime-time televised address last night, President Barack Obama announced he had authorized U.S. airstrikes for the first time in Syria and their expansion in Iraq against the Islamic State, which has seized broad stretches of Iraq and Syria. He vowed to hunt down militants from the Islamic State, quote, "wherever they are." Obama also announced he is sending 475 more U.S. military troops to Iraq, bringing the total to 1,600. He also called for congressional support to arm and train the Syrian opposition. Obama’s speech came on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat. Our objective is clear: We will degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL through comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy.

First, we will conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes against these terrorists. Working with the Iraqi government, we will expand our efforts beyond protecting our own people and humanitarian missions, so that we’re hitting ISIL targets as Iraqi forces go on offense. Moreover, I have made it clear that we will hunt down terrorists who threaten our country, wherever they are. That means I will not hesitate to take action against ISIL in Syria, as well as Iraq. This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.

Second, we will increase our support to forces fighting these terrorists on the ground. In June, I deployed several hundred American servicemembers to Iraq to assess how we can best support Iraqi security forces. Now that those teams have completed their work, and Iraq has formed a government, we will send an additional 475 servicemembers to Iraq. As I’ve said before, these American forces will not have a combat mission. We will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq. But they are needed to support Iraqi and Kurdish forces with training, intelligence and equipment. We’ll also support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard units to help Sunni communities secure their own freedom from ISIL’s control.

Across the border in Syria, we have ramped up our military assistance to the Syrian opposition. Tonight I call on Congress again to give us additional authorities and resources to train and equip these fighters. In the fight against ISIL, we cannot rely on an Assad regime that terrorizes its own people, a regime that will never regain the legitimacy it has lost. Instead, we must strengthen the opposition as the best counterweight to extremists like ISIL, while pursuing the political solution necessary to solve Syria’s crisis once and for all.

Third, we will continue to draw on our substantial counterterrorism capabilities to prevent ISIL attacks. Working with our partners, we will redouble our efforts to cut off its funding, improve our intelligence, strengthen our defenses, counter its warped ideology, and stem the flow of foreign fighters into and out of the Middle East. And in two weeks, I will chair a meeting of the U.N. Security Council to further mobilize the international community around this effort.

Fourth, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to innocent civilians who have been displaced by this terrorist organization. This includes Sunni and Shia Muslims who are at grave risk, as well as tens of thousands of Christians and other religious minorities. We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homelands.

So this is our strategy. And in each of these four parts of our strategy, America will be joined by a broad coalition of partners.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about President Obama’s speech, we’re joined by two guests. Peter Galbraith is former U.S. ambassador to Croatia. He’s worked on issues involving Iraq since the 1980s and is a former adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government. He testified before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, currently a senior diplomatic fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. His books include The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. He joins us from Washington, D.C.

In Chicopee, Massachusetts, we’re joined by Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, author of several books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. Vijay Prashad is also a columnist for Frontline, where he’s been writing extensively about the Islamic State, his latest piece headlined "What President Obama Should Not Do About ISIS."

Ambassador Galbraith, let’s begin with you. Your response to President Obama’s speech last night?

PETER GALBRAITH: He outlined a strategy, and I think the strategy has a good prospect of accomplishing the goal of degrading ISIS. But I don’t think it’s capable of destroying ISIS. So let’s look at the parts of it. Airstrikes are effective when there are forces on the ground. And that really is the dilemma. Inside Iraq and Syria, there are three main forces that you could be supporting. There’s the Kurdistan Peshmerga, which suffered setbacks in August, but the units remained intact. With air support, they’ve been able to retake territory. But they are not going to go significantly beyond Kurdistan, and they’ve more or less retaken that territory. In the rest of Iraq, there’s the Iraqi army, which has largely disappeared since the beginning of the year. We spent billions building it up, and the end result was that the weapons we provided ended up in ISIS’s hands. I don’t see how you reconstitute that. The president’s talking about supporting local forces, and that, in theory, could be effective in the Sunni areas, but it’s going to be hard to get them set up, given that ISIS is there, and also that they would have to work with a government that Sunnis absolutely don’t trust. They don’t see a big difference between al-Abadi and his predecessor, Maliki. So, and in Syria, the problem with supporting the Syrian opposition is that we don’t really have a good feel for who all these people are, and they really have no prospect of defeating Assad, and we don’t really know if we can rely on them to fight ISIS, with the exception of, again, in the Kurdish north, the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish military. They have been fighting ISIS for well more than a year and at least have been holding their own.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Vijay Prashad, I wanted to ask you your reaction to the president’s speech and his new policy, and also this whole idea of asking Congress to finance the retraining once again, a creation of a new Iraqi army, after the last one that the United States spent billions on training has basically disintegrated.

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, I found the speech interesting, because the details on Iraq were definitely much more significant than the details on Syria. It was very light on Syria, for a good reason. At least in Iraq, as Ambassador Galbraith said, there is the possibility of providing close air support to the Kurdish Peshmerga from Iraqi Kurdistan. There’s a possibility of providing close air support through whatever remains of the Iraqi army. After all, they did take back the town of Amerli. But in Syria, there is no real easy group to which the United States can give close air support.

You know, the YPG—that is to say, the Kurdish force in the northeast of Syria—is backed by the Kurdish Workers’ Party from Turkey. The United States sees them as a terrorist organization. So I doubt very much that they will overtly have any coordination with the YPG and the PKK. They’ve already said they will not coordinate with the Syrian government. That’s the second force that could be mobilized to attack the ISIS fighters, particularly as ISIS is moving beyond Raqqa toward the homeland of the Kurdish government. The third major force is the other Islamist opposition. And it’s important to point out here that just a few days ago there was an enormous bomb attack on one of the most, you know, fierce fighting units among the other Islamists, and that was Ahrar al-Sham’s, which lost basically its entire leadership. The Free Syrian Army is basically a shell of what it had been. It’s more in name only.

So the idea that the United States is now going to outsource the training of a moderate Syrian opposition fighting force to Saudi Arabia has created, I think, a lot of worry in the region, a lot of concern, because Saudi Arabia’s own cutout in the Syrian war has been Jaysh al-Islam, which is not known for its moderation in any way. So the United States, if it wants to provide close air support to take on the Islamic State inside Syria, has no effective partner. So, in that sense, Mr. Obama’s speech yesterday was very confusing and was much more rhetoric than actual strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, then come back to this debate. We’re joined by Vijay Prashad, professor of international studies at Trinity College, also by Ambassador Peter Galbraith. Stay with us.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We continue to look at President Obama’s speech last night authorizing airstrikes in Syria and expanding attacks in Iraq against the Islamic State.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This counterterrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ISIL wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partners’ forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the speech, again, we’re joined by two guests, Ambassador Peter Galbraith, former adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Trinity College professor Vijay Prashad. Vijay Prashad, do you think the U.S. should be bombing at all?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, there’s a big difference between bombing from the sky to, you know, destroy the advance of something like the Islamic State, and to give close air support. And I think that this is the confusion, is what exactly is the United States prepared to do? Is it prepared to wipe out the city of Raqqa? Or does it want to give close air support to people on the ground who are fighting directly and engaging with the group, the Islamic State? In Syria, as far as I can see in, unless there is a serious political discussion between all the parties, there is no way that you can reconstitute a significant enough fighting force that will be able to take on the Islamic State. It seems that the United States wants to have it both ways: on the one side, take on the Islamic State, and on the other side, continue with promoting chaos inside Syria. You cannot promote chaos and take on the Islamic State. You have to pick one particular strategy, and Mr. Obama actually has chosen both. Bombing is not a panacea, unless there’s a real strategy of how you’re going to defeat the Islamic State on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ambassador Galbraith, what about this issue of the president saying that he believes he has the authorization to be able to carry out these actions and says he would welcome a vote by Congress but doesn’t feel he needs it? I’d like to ask you about that specifically in relationship to Syria itself.

PETER GALBRAITH: I spent 14 years working for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, from '79 to ’93, and repeatedly the issue of the War Powers Act came up. It was enacted to prevent another Vietnam, but the kind of conflicts that we've had since then have been much smaller scale. The Congress is not serious about having a role in making decisions about these kinds of interventions. And presidents, when they really want to do it, are not interested in getting congressional support. So I think this is really an academic debate that is not of much interest to the American people, not to the foreign policy community. Frankly, it’s a sideshow.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you agree with that, Professor Prashad?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, you know, I don’t have the kind of experience in Washington, D.C., but I do think that a lot of what happens in American foreign policy making, or has happened in the last few years, is much more for domestic consumption than it is actually about the problems around the world. If you just take the examples that Mr. Obama said yesterday of successes, you know, he mentioned Yemen and Somalia. Well, that’s news to the people of Somalia and Yemen that the American strategy has been a success. Indeed, Yemen, principally because it’s out of the American news, appears to be a quiet place, but it’s definitely not a quiet place for the people of Yemen. In fact, the problems in Yemen have since compounded. And even in Somalia, where the leader of al-Shabab was assassinated recently, there was a bomb blast. And, you know, I don’t know, they counted about 20 people dead. So it’s not clear that—when foreign policy decision making is made in the public domain in the United States, it’s not clear that that’s directly in the interests of people overseas or whether it’s for domestic consumption. And it seems to me this is much more for domestic consumption than it is for the actual pragmatic problems for people in that region.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Prashad [sic], the issue of Saudi Arabia, I believe—rather, Ambassador Galbraith, Saudi Arabia, I think Secretary of State Kerry is there today. Saudi Arabia as a funder of the Islamic State and the U.S. role as an ally with Saudi Arabia, do you think it is putting the proper pressure it should, whether we’re talking about Saudi Arabia, whether we’re talking about Qatar, whether we’re talking about Jordan?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, the first point is that these countries don’t see the situation as we do. As far as they’re concerned, the top threat is Iran, and then probably the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Islamic State would be in third place. So, to the extent that the Islamic State is useful in fighting the Iranian-backed regime in Iraq and in Syria, they are much more ambivalent. And that raises a question about a strategy of having the Saudis involved in training the so-called moderate Islamic opposition. And there’s always a question about whether the Saudis are moderate in this matter.

But the other problem in Syria, which I think people don’t focus on, is some 35 percent of the Syrian population is not Sunni Arab. That is to say, they are Alawites, Christian, Druze, other religious minorities and Kurds. And the striking thing about this opposition is that it doesn’t include significant support from any of those communities. The Alawites fear, with very good reason, that if the opposition were to prevail, even the moderates, that they would face genocide. So even if they don’t like Assad, he’s an Alawite, and at least he’s there and capable of preventing genocide.

Now, the one thing that I think was—one of the things that I think was good in the president’s speech, which hasn’t been remarked on, is he made a distinction between trying to eliminate ISIS and having a political settlement in Syria. And I think there’s no prospect that the Syrian war can be resolved militarily. I think it’s going to be very difficult to do it politically. But at least there’s a recognition in his speech that as far as the Assad regime goes, we’re not looking at a military defeat, we’re looking at a political settlement. And I think that’s right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vijay Prashad, what would you see as the solution to the continuing crisis in Iraq and Syria? And how does the United States counter this view in the Arab and Muslim world that it’s going from one country to another seeking to impose its solutions on the local domestic conflicts?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, Juan, I’ll put it in two different ways. I was actually struck by President Obama’s use of words like "Shia" and "Sunni," very loosely used, and I don’t think this is helpful. I think the most important direction is to create a rapprochement, for the United States to work towards creating a de-escalation and rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Unless the United States is able to bring these two countries or at least help bring these two countries to the table, there is going to be continued chaos in the region. And in fact, there has been an opportunity to bring them together, and that was the ill-starred Syria contact group which was formed by Egypt in 2012, which had the most important countries in the region sit around the table, and that was Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. I think something like that needs to be reconstituted. I utterly agree with Ambassador Galbraith that from the standpoint of Riyadh, they still see Iran as the principal threat. And if this continues to happen, well, God help the Middle East, because the most important thing is to de-escalate the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is what is principally going to be an impediment to any—let’s not say "peace," but any de-escalation of the immense violence that has inflicted Syria and Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Prashad, the same question to you about the role of Saudi Arabia in all of this?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, I mean, it’s a curious business. Again, like Ambassador Galbraith, I agree. It’s a serious question whether Saudi Arabia has moderate goals in the region. I mean, the fact is that their cutout in Syria, which is Jaysh al-Islam, was not at all considered a moderate group. I mean, people have worried about the people that Saudi officially has been financing. Forget the private financing from Saudi, Qatari and Kuwaiti sheikhs; the official organization itself is not moderate. So how does that give people confidence that the new force that will be constituted, you know, after the Islamic Front, the Southern Front, and this will be the third attempt—how are we confident that this is going to be moderate? I think, you know, this is really hoping against hope for some kind of development which there is no evidence to indicate can happen—in other words, the making of a moderate military force through the good auspices of Saudi Arabia.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ambassador Galbraith, I’d like to ask you about Iraq specifically. You’ve argued in some of your writings that the national project of Iraq is essentially a failed project and that, especially in terms of the Kurds, greater independence would probably be a better route. How do you see what is going to be happening in Iraq, even assuming the United States is able to prevail against the Islamic State with the support of the local Iraqi and Syrian militias or fighters?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, Iraq had broke apart a long time ago. Kurdistan in the north is, in all regards, an independent state with its own parliament, army. We’re now supplying it directly. We speak of it, you know, as if it were also an independent state. And there’s no way that it’s going to go back to be just a region of Iraq. The president of Kurdistan said he’s going to have a referendum on independence. I think that’s probably been put off for a while. But the operative thing is "put off for a while."

And with regard to Sunnis and Shiites, the problem is that the Sunnis ran Iraq for its first 90 years and their policy was to keep the Kurds in and the Shiites down. Since 2003, the Shiites, who are the majority, have been in charge. It has been a—the last three prime ministers have come Dawa, a Shiite religious party. They seek to define Iraq as a Shiite state with close ties with Iran. That’s unacceptable to the Sunnis. And there’s no way that Sunnis are going to turn against ISIS and work with a government that they see doesn’t really include them, and indeed is hostile to them.

And the president made a lot in his speech of this national unity government. That was the basis for the strategy. But there isn’t one. The Kurds, of the 30 Cabinet ministries, they got three. They haven’t actually even named their people. By their strength in Parliament, they should have had twice as many. They didn’t want to join the government. They did so—and they’ve said this very clearly—only because of very intense U.S. pressure, and because of the deadline of President Obama’s speech. The Sunnis, the members of the government, if any of them live in the Sunni areas of Iraq, they can’t go home. So they aren’t really representing the people who are there. And also, none of those tensions have been solved. Abadi is really—although he speaks better, maybe isn’t as dour and paranoid as his predecessor, he comes from exactly the same party, exactly the same approach, that of a centralized state that is not going to be accommodating to either the Kurds or the Sunnis. So, this national government is not real, and that’s a fundamental problem with the strategy.

AMY GOODMAN: Former Vice President Dick Cheney said Wednesday the rapid rise of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria can be attributed to the failure of President Obama to assert American influence in the region.

DICK CHENEY: ISIS does not recognize a border between Syria and Iraq, so neither should we. We should immediately hit them in their sanctuaries, staging areas, command centers and lines of communication, wherever we find them. We should provide significantly increased numbers of military trainers, special operations forces and intelligence architecture and air power to aid the Iraqi military and the Kurdish Peshmerga in their counteroffensive against ISIS. We work to defeat ISIS and prevent the establishment of a terrorist safe haven in the heart of the Middle East. We must move globally to get back on offense in the war on terror.

AMY GOODMAN: Aside from criticizing the Obama administration, is what President Obama is doing that different from what Dick Cheney wants, Vijay Prashad?

VIJAY PRASHAD: Well, not really, except, of course, firstly, it’s a hubris matter to take Dick Cheney seriously, who after all was one of the architects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which, you know, basically broke the state up completely and provided the opportunity for Iraqi society, which had never really had any kind of al-Qaeda group, to incubate al-Qaeda. So, it’s an odd thing for him to now give advice. But on the other hand, what he’s saying is similar to what Mr. Obama is saying. He’s being more specific. I don’t know what intelligence he is reading, but it’s amazing to hear somebody talk about the Islamic State having command and control centers, supply routes. I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about. This is not a group that’s functioning in the way that he imagines. This is a very different kind of insurgency, much more fragmented. And I’m not sure that it’s going to be so easy to find targets from up on high without people on the ground.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Ambassador Galbraith, the subtitle of your book is War Without End. Are we now looking at a war without end?

PETER GALBRAITH: Yes. I think President Obama’s strategy may be able to degrade the Islamic State, but there isn’t the prospect of putting together a unified Iraqi government that is going to win over the Sunnis and make them partners in an effort to eradicate ISIS in the Sunni areas of the country. So, this is likely to continue for many years. And in Syria, you know, I thought Syria, in its demography, has a lot of similarities to Lebanon. And that civil war went on for 15 years, and it ended when Syria intervened. But there isn’t a Syria to intervene in Syria, so this war also could go on for decades. It’s a real tragedy for the peoples of that part of the world, and it’s going to be a challenge for U.S. and world foreign policy. We’ve had a lot of talk about pivoting from Europe to Asia, but inevitably we’re going to be focused on this part of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Peter Galbraith, I want to thank you for being with us, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, worked on issues involving Iraq since the '80s, former adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, now with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, among his books, Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America's Enemies and The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End. And thank you to Professor Vijay Prashad of Trinity College, author of a number of books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter and, most recently, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what would Dr. King do? Stay with us.

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